More People Smuggling Drugs Inside Their Bodies At Arizona-Mexico Border

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Tuesday, November 24, 2020 - 12:28pm
Updated: Wednesday, November 25, 2020 - 7:42am

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners.

 San Luis Port of Entry
Josh Denmark/U.S. Customs and Border Protection
A sign pointing to the pedestrian crossing at San Luis Port of Entry in 2012.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Drug smuggling is up at the Arizona-Mexico border. In fact, our next guest found Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents are seeing what they call a, quote, "huge spike" in so-called "body carriers" attempting to smuggle often deadly drugs through pedestrian crossings at the border. Phoenix New Times' Ray Stern uncovered this alarming trend and our co-host, Lauren Gilger spoke with him more about it — and what's driving it. A warning: This conversation may not be appropriate for all listeners.

RAY STERN: CBP told me that in April they noticed that they had a 113% increase over March and that it kept getting bigger from there. So they didn't give continuing percentage increases from there. But Customs and Border Protection told me that, that actually they've seen very noticeable increases since April every month.

LAUREN GILGER: Wow. And this includes people smuggling drugs in cars, which is probably the kind of smuggling most people might think about when they think about smuggling drugs across the border, hiding it in a cavity in a car somewhere, in an engine or something. But this is also people in — smuggling drugs within their bodies, right?

STERN: Well, exactly. And for the purposes of my story, what they called the huge spike was specifically in what they called body carriers. And these are people that are carrying drugs internally in a body cavity or it's taped to them somewhere — it's under their clothes. There's also been an increase in just drug seizures. But what was interesting to me is that this huge increase since the pandemic of the body carriers.

GILGER: So let's talk about some of these cases, because you dug up many in the court system as examples of what kinds of things you're seeing happen at the border right now. And many of these, it sounds like, involve U.S. citizens as well.

STERN: All of the ones that I found involve U.S. citizens. And Customs and Border Protection, [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE told me that that's a lot of the suspects that they're seeing for these types of cases right now. That's one of the things that apparently the pandemic has affected. When you look at the travel restrictions that are going on, Mexican citizens cannot simply drive up through the border without having some kind of essential reason for their travel. That, there may be kind of variable enforcement of that. But you could be asked for some kind of documentation that shows that you have an essential reason to, to come to the United States. And so that's probably limited a lot of the Mexicans who may be bringing the drugs up. And so with the U.S. citizens, it's different. You supposedly have to have a central reason to travel to Mexico too. But resorts and other places are just saying, "Come on down." And so there may be some, you know, laxity there. But then also the United States has a policy, a very firm policy, that they will not refuse entry to a U.S. citizen. So if a U.S. citizen goes to Mexico, they have to let you back up. So that's opened more doors for these types of body carrying cases.

GILGER: That makes a lot of sense. Give us an example of a case that you found. What kinds of cases are we talking about here?

STERN: The one that really sort of stood out to me after I'd seen a whole bunch of these and started to think maybe this is a story was a couple that had come in at the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales. And the canine dog started barking at them. These were pedestrians on foot coming through. And this woman asked one of the CBP officers to talk privately. And then she told this person that, that she did have some heroin in her vaginal cavity. And so the officer allowed her to remove that. And then this woman also said that her male partner that she had walked in with also was carrying drugs internally. And then when I called CBP and just asked them, "Hey, have you seen an increase in these types of cases?" They said there was a huge spike and that's what led me to my story.

GILGER: So a lot of these cases that you outline, Ray, have to do with people who say that they were threatened, right?

STERN: Right.

GILGER: Like that their kids were threatened, their families were threatened, and they and, they felt like they had to do this. They had to try and smuggle these drugs across the border. But you spoke with one official also that didn't put much stock in those so-called threat theories. Why not?

STERN: They have a lot of experience with these cases and they may be skeptical of cases that are actually true. But when they start pressing these people for details about the supposed force that, that occurred, their stories fall apart. One woman that I described, she claimed that men in ski masks forcibly taped drugs to her breasts and thighs. And Scott Brown, the special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations Unit, HSI, he said that these types of cases just, just don't have the evidence that show that, that, force is there. Personally, you know, I just don't know. And, you know, when you read some of these cases, some of them sound unbelievable. Others like this woman that said that she's a U.S. citizen, but she has a cousin who lives in Mexico. And she said that the suppliers told her that, that we have your cousin and this person will be, quote unquote, "sold" unless you do this. I have no idea exactly what that means, but it sounds bad and who knows if it's true.

GILGER: You also talked to officials who sort of said that there, that there were broader effects of the pandemic here, that this might have to do with the fact that people are just in dire financial straits right now, right?

STERN: Well, right. There could be people who are desperate. There's also something, the fact that vehicle traffic is down because of the restrictions. But as Scott Brown again told me, they've talked to a lot of these people who apparently are desperate for money. He said some of them may not even possess a vehicle, and so that's why they're doing a pedestrian crossover. They just don't even have a car. I was struck by how little money some of these people were paid to smuggle it really tens of thousands of dollars worth of drugs in a very dangerous way. And they're being paid like $50. One person was paid just $40 to reimburse him for gas. And he had the promise that he'll get some heroin when this is done.

GILGER: Wow. OK, so let's bring this home then to end, Ray. I mean, an increase in smugglers caught at the border means an increase in narcotics that are getting through the border, inevitably — they only catch so many. And, you know, since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been concerns about increases in opioid overdoses, people abusing drugs. And then we're starting to kind of see that play out here in the state as well. I wonder just how much could this be about demand?

STERN: Well, when you look at the numbers of seizures along the border, hard drugs are all up. And we know from reading the stories about the pandemic that people are drinking more. They're, they're buying more marijuana. Medical marijuana sales hit a new record last month in Arizona. And so if fentanyl is your drug of choice, then, then, yeah, I'm sure you're demanding more fentanyl.

GILGER: All right. That is Ray Stern, news editor for The Phoenix New Times, joining us to talk more about this story. Ray, thank you so much for coming on The Show.

STERN: You bet. Thank you for the opportunity.

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